Review- O’Brian, “Master and Commander”

Patrick O’Brian, “Master and Commander” (1969) – In many respects, my decision to read this book (to the extent it was mine- it was elected by the Citizens of Melendy Avenue Review, a fine body of people you should join!), came down to genre homework. The Aubrey-Maturin sea adventures, of which this is the first, have had an outsized effect on adventure fiction of all kinds. It’s fair to say I’ve read people doing Patrick O’Brian in space (David Weber), Patrick O’Brian with dragons (Naomi Novik), Patrick O’Brian in weird alternate history scenarios (S.M. Stirling), etc. So I figured it made sense to read the original article, though of course you’ll have people saying I should go back to C.S. Forester and the “Hornblower” novels, or back before them, or back and back until you wind up with Homer… but most seem to agree O’Brian in particular had a special stamp. His work might have been my biggest single gap in my genre education, other than the gaping lacuna of romance, the English language’s biggest genre… someday…

But “Master and Commander” wasn’t just homework. It turned out to be a lot of fun. The year was 1800! The Napoleonic Wars were raging and things are going pretty well for France and not so great for Britain. But the latter have the Royal Navy (and the English Channel, arguably the most consequential twenty-one miles of water in history). Big sailing ships were almost certainly the most complex technological systems then in existence. Building, crewing, maintaining, sailing, and fighting them involved massive expenditures of both capital and labor, and the development of complex systems of control. If you could make the investment, it paid off big, like it did for the British and eventually the Americans. If you couldn’t, catching up was damned near impossible, as the French and later the Germans found. Just putting guns, even a lot of guns, on something that floats won’t do it.

What you needed were institutions, a culture even, to run such big, complex systems in the absence of a lot of the technological and administrative aids we take for granted, even mass literacy. “Master and Commander” takes you right into that culture and into those systems. I guess that’s a dorky way of saying that O’Brian immerses the reader in how the Royal Navy and its ships worked. We learn of the different types of ship, and especially sloops, smaller ships of the type with which we spend the most time in the book. There’s a lot about rigging and sails, masts, ropes, spars, navigation, stuff being at port and starboard and leeward and windward. We see the rituals of the service, both above decks with the officers and below with the men. There’s a lot of gritty detail about how the Royal Navy operated, which I’ll get into when I discuss plot. “Rum, sodomy, and the lash,” as the Churchill quote (and much better Pogues album) put it, are all present and accounted for to one degree or another.

Of course, most historical fiction readers (and I understand this as paradigmatic historical fiction- is that right?) aren’t reading for systems, though immersion in the rich details of the past are definitely an appeal. At the heart of the book lie relationships between men. The most important is that between Captain Jack Aubrey and Doctor Stephen Maturin. It starts out with Stephen shooshing Jack at a concert, but they soon wind up bosom buddies. Jack has a ship, the sloop “Sophie,” his first independent command, but senior officers stripped her of most of her better men, including her surgeon. So he hires on Stephen, who’s overqualified but glad to get off Minorca, the tiny Mediterranean island where things start, and have adventures with Jack and see new animals and plants and stuff. Stephen is a man of learning, a naturalist, something of an Enlightenment philosophe type (but no damned radical); Jack is a bluff, honest, impulsive Englishman, who likes women, food, a good fight, and prize money.

One of the more interesting things to me in this book is the way in which money moves things (not too different from that other perennial favorite depicting manners and mores of the same period, Jane Austen). The Royal Navy had an entrepreneurial streak certain management writers of today would admire- they would send ships out cruising for enemy shipping, and let the officers and men keep much of the loot they took. It turned out to be a pretty good system when your goal was to disrupt the Europe-wide economic bloc Napoleon was trying to create, and had crews of poor (often kidnapped) men with few options led by officers, like Captain Aubrey, from the petty nobility or bourgeoisie who could use the scratch to launch themselves up Britain’s greasy social pole. Of course, O’Brian and his characters don’t really see it that way- they see it as great fun. Men out on their own, in a hierarchy of real talent and respect, cruising the seas and mixing it up… and O’Brian gets the reader to have fun with it, too, and seeing the system behind it is just part of the fun. These are worldly men who accept the world and make the most of it.

There’s a lot of fun action, from early “shakedown” cruises where Captain Jack gets his misfit crew to work together on the rigging and the guns properly, to battles with other ships (often bigger and more heavily-armed, but clever strategy and brio wins the day… usually), to sneaking up on coastal fortifications and blowing them up. There’s false flags (which I thought weren’t allowed, but apparently were?) and other mischief. Stephen serves as our landlubber eyes, asking Jack and other sailors how stuff works, but there’s way, way too many sails and masts and ropes and decks and widgets and whatevers to actually keep track. You just let it wash over you. The character work is quite good in its way, unobtrusive and effective- you learn to like the other officers from small interactions.

They get a year or so of fun doings until Royal Navy politics rears its ugly head. Jack is a simple man who enjoys simple things, like sex, including with an important naval bureaucrat’s wife (Stephen, for his part, seems only to have oh-so-platonic eyes for his bestie, Jack). Said bureaucrat screws Jack out of a big score “Sophie” took and puts him on a milk run, escorting a mail ship. Saucy Jack takes some scores on coastal Spain, tipping off some big ass French and Spanish ships, and gets captured (O’Brian knows where to draw the line in terms of what dash and elan can accomplish).

And then… well, it’s not a big problem, but it is pretty anticlimactic. After some amusing scenes where both Jack and Stephen become bros with their captors — officers and doctors can always talk shop, even if they were trying to kill each other not so long ago — they get swapped out, and Jack looks like he’ll get in trouble for losing his ship (and pissing off too many other officers by showing them up/sleeping with their wives)… but he doesn’t. There’s another anticlimax earlier, where some intrigue involving Stephen, the ship’s second in command James, and the United Irishmen (rebels in colonized Ireland, just recently suppressed), basically comes to nothing after having been built up for a while.

Still and all, it’s fun times. I could see people getting tired of the nautical terminology, or just wanting Jack and Stephen to hurry up and bang already, but clearly both the terminology and the suppression of the homoeroticism involved is part of the genre fun. I think it more or less fully earns the hype and its exalted place in genre fiction, and I look forward to reading the next one. ****’

Review- O’Brian, “Master and Commander”

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